Tyler James Williams Loves Being the Dwyane Wade to Quinta Brunson’s LeBron James

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Tyler James Williams Loves Being the Dwyane Wade to Quinta Brunson’s LeBron James

Tyler James Williams is a student of the game, be it basketball or network TV. After breaking out as the teenage star of Everybody Hates Chris, the now 29-year-old actor—and die-hard Lakers fan—looked at a changing TV landscape a few years back and didn’t like what he saw. With his heart still in the world of sitcoms like Chris, he took roles on darker shows like The Walking Dead and Criminal Minds, biding his time until something fresh came along that could reinvigorate his favorite platform and genre.

And then came Abbott Elementary.

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Premiering in December as a midseason replacement, the mockumentary comedy, created by Quinta Brunson, about teachers at an underfunded school in Philadelphia slowly built buzz week to week, eventually becoming a bonafide hit and critical darling. It’s now earned seven Emmy nominations—including Outstanding Comedy Series—and Williams got a nod in the outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series category for his portrayal of substitute teacher and Baltimore pizza lover Gregory Eddie, who was promoted to full-time staff in the season one finale.

Like Brunson, Williams was particularly ecstatic about the nomination for his costar Sheryl Lee Ralph, a 45-year veteran of the industry who was also nabbing her first career nom. “I emotionally got my ass whooped,” he says and then laughs. Speaking a week after that emotional beatdown, Williams took a break from filming Abbott’s second season to discuss embracing the old TV model, needing to hear just one sentence to be sold on Gregory, and thriving as the Dwyane Wade to Brunson’s LeBron James.

Vanity Fair: You’re just days into production on season two, so how’s that been?

Tyler James Williams: Good, man. We came in with a bang, which is always great because you never know. You come in, you could be rusty, you don’t know where it lands, but we picked right up where we left off.

It’s been a long time since you finished filming season 1, right?

The first week of November. We only shot from August to November for those 13. So we’ve actually spent more time talking about this show at this point than we have shooting it. But it’s good that we didn’t lose anything.

We’re talking the day after news dropped of Abbott’s full 22-episode order for season two. How rewarding is it knowing that you’re going to get this classic, old school network TV run?

For me, that’s the way I prefer to do TV. I prefer a 22-episode arc, because that’s what I’m used to. It’s good to see that the network comedy in its original format is still alive—we can still be here and do this. And I think it’s a testament to Americans’ viewing patterns, and how, although we can have these new trends that happen, the core stays there. People want a show that they can watch throughout the year and then go talk about with their friends; it’s something that becomes a part of their lives.

It’s interesting, because like The Office and Parks and Recreation debuted with six-episode first seasons and people were mostly like, “Eh, I don’t know.” And then they immediately came back with iconic 22-episode season twos.

Initially, I get it. Especially in a mockumentary format, there’s a big difference between what’s on the page and then what gets shot; not by way of improvising, but you can’t have these looks and reactions tied into your script. So you have to really see if this idea is going to work. But we really get a chance to thrive at a 22-episode clip rather than 13. We don’t have to drive immediately through the story to get to where we want to go; we can play and have fun because there’s more space.

Okay, you said you started filming season one last August, so if I would have told you back then that a year later you’d be Emmy-nominated and the show would be Emmy-nominated, what would your reaction have been?

It takes a lot to shock me. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out this TV game and how it works and how it’s changed. But, with that being said, no, I would’ve never seen this being the case. [Laughs.] I thought we could get there. I knew that we had a really good show, and considering the space of network TV hadn’t been refreshed in a while, I knew we had a really good shot of holding on and having multiple seasons. And I felt like we had a really good shot of being a hit and maybe the show getting nominated for an Emmy—definitely not any of these things in season one! Particularly seven nominations on season one of a midseason, 13-episode show. So it became overwhelming—to an extent—because it happened so fast, but I think, as a cast, we did a really good job of settling into this position.

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